A senior U.S. government scientist is set to testify in a congressional hearing next week after filing a whistleblower complaint alleging officials retaliated against him for insisting on “scientifically vetted proposals” and “a more aggressive agency response to COVID-19.”
Congresswoman Anna Eshoo said Rick Bright’s complaint raises serious concerns about the Trump administration’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, and that she also wants to hear testimony from Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar and Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response Robert Kadlec.
“This complaint alleges that the Administration has put cronyism and internal bickering ahead of protecting the health of Americans during a pandemic. Dr. Bright’s complaint deserves examination,” Eshoo said.
Bright said Kadlec put pressure on his unit, the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, to invest in drugs and vaccines that lacked scientific merit, including the drug hydroxychloroquine.
“Dr. Bright felt powerless to protect the public from this potentially toxic chemical that HHS, at President Trump’s insistence, was touting as a safe treatment,” the complaint says. “Yet he felt an urgent and compelling need to inform the American public that this drug with insufficient scientific data to support its use for COVID-19 patients, with known safety concerns, and with no FDA oversight over its quality was now being pushed or ‘flooded’ onto the streets of America.”
Dr. Leana Wen, an emergency physician and public health professor at George Washington University, told VOA the focus of the coronavirus response needs to be on science and that there is a reason drugs have to go through clinical trials.
“If we ignore the science, we will pay the price,” she said. “Decisions, policies should be made based on evidence and based on data, and it would be extremely concerning if our top scientists and doctors in the federal government are not able to do their part and make recommendations based on the best available science and evidence.”
The whistleblower complaint also says HHS leaders criticized Bright for pushing early on in the outbreak to invest resources in vaccine development and ensuring adequate supplies of masks, ventilators and testing swabs. It says officials repeatedly ignored outreach from a mask manufacturer who offered to start up dormant production lines with government backing.
The Trump administration has faced criticism from state governors who say they were left to scramble and compete against each other to try to source equipment needed in their hospitals to treat patients and keep medical workers safe.
Wen said the United States “lost valuable time in preparing for COVID-19” that in retrospect could have been used to bolster the health care system.
“We still, even to this day, have not marshaled all the necessary resources that we need in order to combat this outbreak, and I'm very concerned that we still do not have any national coordinated effort in this time of a public health emergency,” she said.
President Donald Trump traveled Tuesday to an aerospace factory in Arizona that has shifted operations to make masks, part of a series of visits planned to highlight the administration’s response efforts.
WATCH: Trump in Arizona
“Through FEMA, HHS, and our private sector partners, we're equipping our frontline medical workers with more than 70 million N95 respirators, 112 million surgical masks, 7 million face shields, 18 million gowns, and nearly 1 billion gloves,” Trump said.
Bright alleges he was transferred to another position out of retaliation and his complaint asks that he be reinstated along with a full investigation.
An HHS statement Tuesday said Bright was transferred to the National Institutes of Health “to work on diagnostics testing” that is key to the coronavirus fight.
“We are deeply disappointed that he has not shown up to work on behalf of the American people and lead on this critical endeavor,” HHS spokeswoman Caitlin Oakley said.